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Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933


From an acclaimed historian and social critic, a passionate and poignant history of German Jews from the mid-eighteenth century to the eve of the Third Reich

As it's usually told, the story of the German Jews starts at the end, with their tragic demise in Hitler's Third Reich. Now, in this important work of historical restoration, Amos Elon takes us back to the beginning, chronicling a period of achievement and integration that at its peak ...

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From an acclaimed historian and social critic, a passionate and poignant history of German Jews from the mid-eighteenth century to the eve of the Third Reich

As it's usually told, the story of the German Jews starts at the end, with their tragic demise in Hitler's Third Reich. Now, in this important work of historical restoration, Amos Elon takes us back to the beginning, chronicling a period of achievement and integration that at its peak produced a golden age second only to the Renaissance.

Writing with a novelist's eye, Elon shows how a persecuted clan of cattle dealers and wandering peddlers was transformed into a stunningly successful community of writers, philosophers, scientists, tycoons, and activists. He peoples his account with dramatic figures: Moses Mendelssohn, who entered Berlin in 1743 through the gate reserved for Jews and cattle, and went on to become "the German Socrates"; Heinrich Heine, beloved lyric poet who famously referred to baptism as the admission ticket to European culture; Hannah Arendt, whose flight from Berlin signaled the end of the German-Jewish idyll. Elon traces how this minority-never more than one percent of the population-came to be perceived as a deadly threat to national integrity, and he movingly demonstrates that this devastating outcome was uncertain almost until the end.

A collective biography, full of depth and compassion, The Pity of It All summons up a splendid world and a dream of integration and tolerance that, despite all, remains the essential ennobling project of modernity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Amos Elon:

"Penetrating, profound, explosive . . . this book is a beacon."

-The New York Times Book Review (front page), on Israelis: Founders and Sons

"Lucid and intelligent . . . Succeeds in snatching its elusive subject from oblivion."

-The New York Times Book Review, on Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild

Publishers Weekly
In his excellent overview, veteran Israeli journalist and historian Elon (a biographer of Herzl and others) writes in a fluid and appealing style, with a talent for capturing the right anecdote or quote. He focuses on individual figures, both well-known ones such as Heine, Marx (both of whom converted to Protestantism) and Herzl, and lesser-knowns such as Ludwig Sonnemann (a newspaper editor who excoriated Bismarck's 1871 annexation of Alsace and Lorraine), Kurt Eisner (head of a short-lived socialist republic in Bavaria in 1919) and Walter Rathenau (the assimilated foreign minister who was assassinated in 1922). Like other historians of German Jewry, Elon points to the leadership of Jews in bringing the Enlightenment to Germany and to their high rate of assimilation and intermarriage (by the 1920s, the intermarriage rate of German Jewry rivaled that of America today). Fortunately, Elon avoids the trap of seeing all of pre-Nazi German-Jewish history as a prelude to the Holocaust or of viewing the "Final Solution" as inevitable. At the end of the 19th century, he argues effectively, "In most other European countries, prejudice and discrimination seemed equally or more prevalent" than in Germany. Elon's book is not without its shortcomings, such as focusing too much on Berlin and neglecting Jews in other cities, as well as rural and poor Jews, eastern European immigrants and women. But given these failings, this study will prove enlightening and enjoyable to those interested in both modern Jewish and modern German history. 47 b&w illus. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Elon's ambitious history of German Jews begins with Moses Mendelssohn and ends with Hitler. More an overview than a profound history, it still has the merit of being eminently readable and comprehensive. Elon covers inter alia the Jewish writers and philosophers who propagated the ideas of the Enlightenment, the divisions among German Jews and their economic success, their reactions to the Revolution of 1848 and to Germany's wars, the rise of assimilation and antisemitism, and the growing gap between Jewish liberalism and "the reactionary turn of the German middle class." Much of the book's interest lies not in the study of political currents and collective psychological tensions but in the portraits and sketches of Jewish personalities seen in all their variety. The tragic fall of German Jewry came after a period of growing intermarriage and social intermingling, which may explain why so many of its members saw the upsurge of Nazism as "a temporary warp" and stayed in Germany far too long.
Library Journal
German Jews were among the first in the modern era to attempt to be both Jewish and national simultaneously. Elon author of over half a dozen books on Jewish history argues that this fusion often caused dissonance, which manifested itself in a number of intellectual movements, from radical assimilation to Zionism. Elon re-creates the German Jewish intellectual world through collective biography, whereby individuals are chosen as archetypes to understand the challenges and accomplishments of the entire German Jewish community. Such an approach can be dangerous, relying as it does on those who have left some sort of literary or political remnant. Elon, however, usually avoids this trap by focusing on the public side of German-Jewish life. Indeed, Elon's study charts a similar intellectual pattern to Ritchie Robertson's (The Jewish Question in German Literature, 1749-1939: Emancipation and Its Discontents). Unlike Robertson, who concentrated on its literary and philosophical manifestations, Elon examines a wider spectrum, including political and economic thought. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is "War Fever," which brings into stark contrast the responses of these various intellectual movements to total war in 1914. This work provides fascinating insight into the Jewish dilemma of coping with modernity. Recommended for most libraries. Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A superb account of the sometimes exalted, often tragic relations among Germans and Jews, "two souls within a single body." Jews, writes Israeli novelist and historian Elon (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East, 1997, etc.), had lived in Germany since the days of the Roman conquest, though always uneasily. For a 200-year period, however, much of German society opened to them, with institutional barriers and common prejudices falling away. Elon begins with the arrival in Berlin, in 1743, of a shoeless, hunchbacked boy from Dessau, Moses Mendelssohn, who spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish; fewer than 20 years later, Mendelssohn had taught himself several languages and had "become a renowned German philosopher, philologist, stylist, literary critic, and man of letters, one of the first to bridge the social and cultural barrier between Jews and other Germans." Within a few years, other Jews were able to enter the professions, attend university, and engage in business more or less openly; some even received titles of nobility. Over time, their influence on the arts and culture, combining with what otherwise was a golden age for German language and literature, produced a remarkable body of work that has been likened to that of the Renaissance and, Elon observes, would be remembered as such had not the end been so tragic. In few other places did Jews so successfully assimilate into the dominant society, so much so that German Jews widely opposed the mass immigration of their brethren from Russia following the pogroms of the late-19th century, with German-Jewish politician Walter Rathenau decrying the arrival of the "Asiatic horde." At the time of WWI, Germany was renowned as a placeof religious tolerance, a situation that would soon thereafter change abruptly with the assassination of Rathenau, the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Adolf Hitler. Well-written, humane, full of learned asides and character sketches of figures such as Heinrich Heine, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Karl Kraus: a memorable evocation of a disappeared world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805059649
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/1/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Meet the Author

Amos Elon is the author of eight widely praised books, including Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and the New York Times bestseller Israelis: Founders and Sons. A frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and The New York Review of Books, he divides his time between Jerusalem and Tuscany.

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Read an Excerpt

From The Pity of It All:

Barely twenty-four years old, Heinrich Heine arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1821 to study law at the university and attend Hegel's seminar on aesthetics. Slight, pale, with dreamy blue eyes and long, wavy blond hair, he was an enormously gifted writer, widely known for the lyricism of his poetry and the scathing wit of his prose. No other author has ever been so German and so Jewish or so ambivalent and ironic about being both; Heine would leave an indelible mark on German culture. During these university days, he wore velvet jackets, dandyish Byronic collars, and a fashionable wide-rimmed felt hat known as a Bolivar. Older by two or three years than most of his peers, he was allergic to the alcohol, nicotine, and "patriotic" politics they indulged in so boisterously. His distaste for alcohol persisted; he is said to have claimed that the Jewish contribution to the new German patriotism was "the small glass" of beer.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Ancient Renown 13
2 The Age of Mendelssohn 33
3 Miniature Utopias 65
4 Heine and Borne 101
5 Spring of Nations 149
6 Hopes and Anxieties 185
7 Years of Progress 221
8 Assimilation and Its Discontents 259
9 War Fever 297
10 The End 355
Notes 405
Acknowledgments 431
Index 433
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